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Jane Eyre (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 8

Jane Eyre

JANE EYRE (2011)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Imogen Poots, Holliday Grainger, Tamzin Merchant, Freya Wilson, Jayne Wisener, Craig Roberts, Sophie Ward, Valentina Cervi, Simon McBurney and Harry Lloyd.

Screenplay by Moira Buffini.

Directed by Cary Fukunaga.

Distributed by Focus Features. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.

It’s taking on quite a challenge to make a movie version of one of the classic novels of British literature – particularly one as ubiquitous as Jane Eyre. Much more than the average film, you have to live up to very heightened expectations. After all, generations of readers have mental pictures of what happened in Thornfield Hall. You don’t want to tweak the story too much or you are stuck with a stinker like Demi Moore’s version of The Scarlet Letter. Yet, if you don’t bring something different to the table, what’s the point of even making it?

Even on the simplest level of comparison, the makers of the new version of Jane Eyre have their work cut out for them. According to the press notes for this film, Charlotte Bronte’s 1849 novel has already been turned into a motion picture a whopping 19 times – and that isn’t even counting the many television productions, stage and radio plays of the story. Therefore, not only are the filmmakers competing against the public’s view of the book, they are also up against all the other versions of the story which have preceded them.

This 20th version of the novel is faithful to the crux of the story; however, they do tweak it in certain ways, which mostly work.

For example, the basic story structure is slightly redone. The movie starts with certain scenes that actually happen pretty late in the novel, and then doubles back to the earlier parts of the novel, essentially telling those in flashback.

It is mostly a wise choice – as the filmmakers point out 2/3 of the way through the book a whole new set of characters just suddenly appear, which can work in literature, but feels awkward on film, so they moved those characters up front and center. That said, the actual point where they flash back to Jane’s childhood and then forward again for several years (but still before the opening scenes) gets a little confusing – the viewer gets lost as to where they are in place and time for a little bit in the early going.

The other main tweak is that the new film decides to play up the gothic mystery at the heart of the novel, making it a bit creepier and darker than most previous incarnations.

This is also a savvy storytelling move. It tends to bring a bit of intrigue to some of the novel’s creakier parts – naturally, a novel so old does have a different pace and timbre from more current fare. Some of it is even a bit hard to relate to in the modern world. When was the last time you saw a movie about a female protagonist who has no other aspirations than to find true love?

However, this novel became a classic for a reason and mostly it works extremely well in this retelling. The occasional problems which are almost inevitable with such an aged story – like the slightly overwrought ending and the fact that much of the action in the final act takes place offscreen and is only recounted to the heroine after the fact – are made up for by the sumptuous locations (most of it was filmed in a real castle), the stellar acting and the obvious passion of all involved.

In the title role, Wasikowska, a young Australian actress who has now played two of the iconic characters in British literature before her 22nd birthday (last year she also starred as the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) proves that she is more than up to the task of taking on such a treasured role. Michael Fassbinder makes a dashing Rochester (though he may be a little handsome for the role, which according to the novel is supposed to be a very plain man). And as always, Dame Judi Dench brings her gravitas and talent to the role of Mrs. Fairfax, the keeper of the castle who discreetly knows all the secrets inside the walls.

Jane Eyre is also a bit of surprising choice as the second film by director Cary Fukunaga, who previously made the gritty Latin American crime drama Sin Nombre. Fukunaga gives the story a bit of a sense of danger and gothic gloom that is in the novel but often missing in the adaptations.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: March 11, 2011.


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